CAIRO – Over 10,000 ultraconservative Muslims demonstrated Friday in downtown Cairo to demand that Egypt's new constitution be based on the rulings of Islamic law, or Shariah, in the latest tussle over the role of religion in the country's future.
The writing of the constitution has been fraught with controversy since last year's political uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ushered in the rise of formerly repressed Islamists to power. But Islamists themselves are not in agreement over the interpretation of Shariah and its place in the document.
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square demanded that the panel tasked with writing the constitution override liberal and secular objections and include language that could see religious scholars influencing legislation. The panel is led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist group from which the country's new President Mohammed Morsi hails.
"Shariah is our constitution," and, "The people demand the application of God's law," protesters chanted.
The controversy surrounding the constitution is centered on the wording of the second amendment. In the former constitution, the wording stated that the "principles of Islamic Shariah" are the basis of legislation. This wording is favored by liberals because they say it refers to the broad ideas of Islam.
Ultraconservatives are pushing for more, though. They want the wording changed to state that the basis of law will be "the rulings of Shariah," implying Egypt's laws may be left to the interpretation of religious scholars.
The current 100-member assembly has just a handful of women, some of them from the Brotherhood, and eight Christians. It is the second constitutional assembly to be formed, with the first body dissolved by court order earlier this year after liberals and seculars walked out over complaints that Islamists were trying to dominate the process.
Ongoing controversy over the wording of the charter has thrown into question when the draft will be complete. Panel members say they plan to put the charter to a nationwide referendum before the end of the year.
However, liberals on the panel are again threatening to walk out and Islamists writing the draft are under pressure from more conservative groups to strongly enshrine Shariah in the constitution. Egypt's new Coptic pope, Tawadros II, said this week that the constitution will not be acceptable if it is overtly religious. Courts are also currently reviewing lawsuits calling for the assembly to be disbanded for a second time.
Egypt's two most powerful political movements, the Brotherhood and the more conservative Salafi Nour Party, said they were not participating in Friday's protest, although many of their supporters did. The two groups, which hold an influential number of seats in the assembly, have said protests are premature since the constitution is still being written.
Many were bussed in from outside Cairo to take part in Friday's rally, which was significantly smaller without the organized support of the Brotherhood.
The demonstration was mostly peaceful until the evening, until a small group opposed to the rally began arguing with the Islamists on a street leading off of the square. The two groups scuffled and threw stones. There were no reports of injuries.
Hassan Abdel-Hamid, from a town near the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, said parents should support Shariah because it will deter the harassment of women.
"Don't be afraid of the application of Shariah, because if your daughter is coming home late at night nobody will harass her because he will face Shariah's punishment and retribution," Abdel-Hamid said.
Seeking to mollify ultraconservatives who accuse the Brotherhood of not advocating strongly enough for Islamic rule, the constitutional panel is now discussing adding a new article that would explain what the principles of Islamic Shariah are.
Protesters also demanded the ouster of the country's top prosecutor, a Mubarak holdover whom Morsi tried unsuccessfully to remove from his post. Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud bowed to pressure from Salafi protesters this week by ordering ministries to block pornographic websites in line with a 2009 court ruling. Similar decisions in the past have gone unheeded due to high costs associated with the technical aspects.
"People are scared of the application of Shariah, but I am telling Muslims and Christians and everyone that Islam is a mercy on all of us because it is based on the Quran's rules," protester Gaber Mohammed said.
Mohammed, like many of those protesting Friday, is a member of a party set up by Gamaa Islamiya, once the country's largest militant group that has since renounced violence.
Protesters waved the black Islamist flag and the Egyptian flag, and held traditional Friday prayers in the square after a sermon by conservative preacher, Mohammed al-Sagheer.
"My brothers, the Egyptian people love God, the Prophet (Muhammad) and the Kaaba," he said, referring to the cube-shaped structure in Mecca toward which Muslims pray five times a day.